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by | Jan 16, 2024 | Writing Process | 2 comments


Is googling enough? Should we only write about our own lives and what we know personally?

This question was posed during a Zoom writing group I recently attended. To give context, a writer stated that he didn’t want to write about himself. A non-cop, he’d submitted a police procedural for review, and members were struggling to relate to his characters. Most had believability issues with his plot. They encouraged him to write about his own very colorful life, but I was on the fence about their advice. He said that though his ‘immigrant succeeding in America life’ might seem interesting to others, it didn’t inspire him creatively.

I am a firm believer in writing about what stirs and motivates you. But what if the very thing that gets you excited involves a place you’ve never visited, let alone lived in, or a job you’ve never done? The non-cop writing group member said he used Google to research police tactics and procedures, but clearly, something was missing with respect to his story. This got me thinking…in today’s post-pandemic world of internet research, should we avoid Google and the unknown and focus our stories solely on familiar people, places, and things?

When my writing group ended, I thought about one successful novelist who seemed to do the opposite of this—Arthur Golden, the author of Memoirs of a Geisha. When his award-winning novel about a Japanese girl training to be a geisha during World War 2 came out in 1997, Golden, an American father and professor from Tennessee, was forty-two years old. The novel is written in the first-person point of view.  This middle-aged man’s ability to inhabit the mind of a young Japanese girl who lived forty years before his time impressed me. I thought that if Golden could accurately depict a world completely foreign from his own, my writing group friend could do it, too. After all, Golden had accomplished this feat without the aid of Google. Google came out in 1998. I was about to email my thoughts to my friend, but then I did some Google research of my own.

I discovered that Golden lived in Japan for two years prior to writing his novel, that he had a Master’s degree in Japanese history, that he’d interviewed countless former geishas, and that it took him six years to research, write, and edit his novel. It occurred to me that the life of a Japanese geisha wasn’t completely foreign to Golden after all. So where did this leave my writing group friend? What advice could I offer him? Should I encourage him to keep working on the police procedural that excited him, or should he attempt to write something closer to home?

Though I write thrillers and murder mysteries, I’ve never personally seen a dead body or even held a gun. I write magic realism, too, and I’ve never spoken to a practicing witch. (That I know of.) But I do try to do as much computer research as possible, and if a beta reader tells me that an aspect of my plot isn’t believable to them, I fix the glitch that pulls them out of the story. I also scatter details from my own life into my novels, which I believe grounds my work and makes it feel more real. My characters often have jobs I’m familiar with, they deal with kid drama like me, they live in places where I’ve lived, and they visit dog parks. I’m a dog lover. In other words, I mix in the known with the unknown. And this, along with research, seems to work for me. But every writer is different.

A couple of months ago, I attended a talk given by a writer who’d written a mystery novel set in a city she’d never been to, New Orleans. She spoke about interviewing a friend who lived in the French Quarter who gave her a sense of what the city was like. She watched films set in the Big Easy, and she studied photos and maps of the parishes. The writer felt that doing all this was enough to give her a grasp of the city, its people, and its vibe. I read her novel, and it was pretty good. But could it have been better if she’d actually lived in New Orleans or at least visited? Should she have set her mystery in a more familiar place?

For me, writing about the unknown boils down to two things. Number one, does your passion fuel you enough so that you’ll do the hard research needed to make an unfamiliar place, job, or lifestyle come alive on the page? Number two, how vivid is your imagination? Can you truly get inside the head of a fighter pilot if you have a fear of flying? If you have 20/20 vision, can you honestly understand what it’s like to be blind, not just the basics, but the daily nuances of it all? If the answer to both of those questions is a resounding “Yes!” then I say go for it. Still, one question looms largely in my mind. Are there parts of your story that you might overlook simply because you’ve lived a different life, details that might take the story down another truer path?

I was watching The Talk while I was on the treadmill at my gym, and one of the hosts, Natalie Morales, mentioned that Tom Cruise planned to go to the Space Station to research his next film. She asked the other hosts if they thought Tom Cruise should go into space for his art. The responses of the panel were mixed, but I’d finally come to a conclusion about my writing group friend’s predicament.

After watching The Talk segment, I decided to support whatever project he chose to focus on. We can’t all go to the Space Station. We can’t all be Tom Cruise. As writers, not A-list movie stars, our lives are often restricted by our financial situations and family and job responsibilities. The reality is that most of us have to rely on Google to some extent. But if we’re driven by passion and we work hard, I believe that we can write about faraway unfamiliar places, even walking on the moon, and make the experience believable to our readers. You never know. You could write a convincing story about the Space Station that rivals Tom Cruise’s next film. After all, Andy Weir, the author of The Martian, never traveled to Mars.


  1. Laura Pitney

    I find this to be such an interesting and important question. Thanks for exploring it!

    • Mary Frances Hill



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